The Silent Collection by Tammy Stone
From cover girl to movie star, Eleanor Boardman led a charmed life. Then again, it’s difficult to gauge all these years later what life was really like in those hectic days when movies were becoming a phenomenon of mass popularity, when the studio heads didn’t know quite what they wanted out of actors and everything was one big experiment. But one thing seems sure: they liked what they saw the minute Eleanor came into town.
While they didn’t turn her into an instant star a la Mary Pickford, Clara Bow or Norma Talmadge, they consistently employed Eleanor for her inordinate beauty and utter ease in front of the cameras. In those heady days, this translated into a very decent career of 35 films or so – not as prolific as many of her peers, but enough to garner her attention – and a life among the stars.
Boardman was born in Philadelphia on August 19, 1898, three years after the movies had become available to the public. Her early family life, however, was not compatible with the world that the movies were opening up. Her parents were extremely religious, and believed that films were wicked, and that watching them was tantamount to a sin. Luckily for us, Eleanor did not at all agree with her parents, and from the start sought out her own, independent lifestyle.
She was successful at it too. When she was a teenager, she became a model, and famously so when she signed on with Eastman Kodak to be one of what would be many “Kodak Girls.” Eleanor seemed to be able to smell out good opportunities, as this job was no mere modeling gig; Kodak, as we all know, would become the eminent manufacturer of motion picture film stock. But we jump ahead – first Eleanor worked her way up the modeling ranks, and when she reached the tender ages of fifteen and sixteen, she became the official “Kodak Girl.” This essentially meant that she was their leading model and the most recognizable face used to sell all Kodak products. (Much like today, we associate Kate Moss with Calvin Klein and Cindy Crawford with The Gap.)
For Eleanor, in the very early 1920s, this meant that her face appeared in an ad displayed all over the country. But she didn’t leave her career ambitions up to fate, hoping against hope to be discovered by a movie mogul, as happened to so many would-be stars before and after her. Instead, she packed up her bags and moved to Hollywood, bent on becoming an actress.
She didn’t have too long to wait. In 1922, the Goldwyn Pictures company signed her on as a contract player, and they liked her enough to renew her contract two years later, when they officially became Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. She ultimately stayed with MGM until 1932. The studio clearly admired her ravishing beauty, but Eleanor also possessed a rare sophistication not found among all the young starlets. What’s more, she also had a real knack for acting. All this pretty much made her a perfect package as a contract player, and the reason for her lasting success.
She also became the target for romantic affection, and this certainly didn’t hurt her career. She had eyes for only one, but she sure knew how to pick them. In 1926, Eleanor married King Vidor, already a well known filmmaker who would, by the late 1950s, make nearly sixty films, many of them classics. This extremely talented producer, director, actor and even presenter fell in love with Eleanor soon after he met her, and the rest, as they say, is history.
But the story only begins here. Before Eleanor and King Vidor were married, he was already appreciative of her acting abilities, and cast her in some of his best-remembered films, including Three Wise Fools (1923), Wine of Youth (1924), Wife of the Centaur (1925), Proud Flesh (1925) and Bardelys the Magnificent (1926). She worked with some impressive costars in these films, from John Gilbert to Johnnie Walker and Harrison Ford (not that Harrison Ford!)
Perhaps the greatest work for both of them was 1928’s The Crowd, also an MGM production, in which James Murray starred as an alienated man in a vast urban jungle. Eleanor starred opposite him as the love interest, and the film ended up exceeding everyone’s expectations; surprisingly, Eleanor was the object of the best critical praise, since this was a movie meant to bolster the James Murray’s career. The Crowd did so well that 53 years after its initial release, it enjoyed a revival in England, where it played to sold out crowds at 1981’s London Film Festival. All that time later, a critic marveled at Eleanor’s talent: What a superbly controlled performance Eleanor Boardman gives; and what a sweetness she had, uncloying, instinct with life.” (John Coleman, The New Statesman).
Of course, with fame comes a price, and in Hollywood, this price is usually malicious gossip. In Eleanor’s case, rumors started flying among those who love to label celebrities that Eleanor was “the most outspoken girl in Hollywood.” (It could have been a lot worse!)
The star certainly did have the opportunity to speak out in a lot of places, given she was on everyone’s guest list for years. Among her elite hosts were William Randolph Hearst (the notorious newspaper mogul who inspired Citizen Kane) and Marion Davies, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, the Gish sisters and John Barrymore. In other words, the who’s who of early Hollywood.
Although Eleanor’s film career started late into the silent era, she did survive the transition to sound, at least for awhile.
Between 1927 and 1932 she made several talkies, but then she left MGM, divorced King Vidor, and went to Spain to make what be her two last films: 1934’s It Happened in Spain and 1935’s The Three Cornered Hat (Henri d’Abbadie d’Arrast directed). D’Arrast and Eleanor had something in common, as both were now well-known figures in Hollywood, but trying their luck out overseas. They also got along exceptionally well, and married soon after they finished the film.
After this, Eleanor lived the life of royalty, dividing her time between the U.S. and Europe, where the happy couple owned a chateau in the Pyrenees. In 1968, after d’Arrast died, Eleanor decided to move back to her native country, and settled in Montecito, California.
Ever ambitious, she didn’t settle into any old house, but designed one herself so that she could live out her last days in comfort in style: exactly as she had lived. And she lived long – she passed away on December 12, 1991, at the age of 93, perhaps not the most luminescent star in Hollywood, but one of the most stable, talented and enduring.
Tammy Stone is a freelance writer and journalist based in Toronto. Watch for her regular column on the greats of the Silent Screen in each issue of The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter. Tammy invites you to write her with any questions or comments on her column.